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Issue No. 78 (November 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Many years ago, in the middle of the turmoil over Vietnam and the war on poverty, sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote a book called Remembering the Answers. It tried to buck up wobbly moderates and liberals against the challenge posed by the social change movement.
Today we’re living in a different era. The political establishment has nothing to fear. As I write, Rosa Parks’s coffin is lying in the Capitol Rotunda, and Martin, Malcolm, Stokely, Abbie, Mario, etc., are long gone.
But many of the issues are eerily the same.
President Bush’s attempt to bring democracy to Iraq -- if that’s what it is -- was so ineptly planned and executed that the war feels like Vietnam to much of the rest of the world. Poverty still haunts too many Americans (see Katrina), and the needs of the next generation are still being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency (see, e.g., renewable energy, public education, runaway deficits).
Where are the change agents?
One big difference is that there is, as yet, no compelling political opposition.
The antiglobalists seem to have nothing of value to offer (radical decentralization? America First?), the mainstream left has no agenda except New Deal Lite, and the radical center is already beginning to mute its most imaginative proposals, as demonstrated at the National Policy Forum on America’s Economic Future in Washington DC last summer (see HERE).
Even the thirtysomething representatives of the radical center appear to have hit a wall. Ted Halstead, co-author of The Radical Center, was laughed at during a recent presentation at his own think tank (the New America Foundation) when he suggested we need to fundamentally change our tax system; and John Avlon, author of Independent Nation, has been writing columns long on eloquence but short on transformative political proposals (see HERE).
Instead of going down to look at Rosa Parks’s coffin, I decided to honor her memory in a different way. I decided to look up some of the books that had inspired me in the 10 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott and try to tease out their fundamental questions.
Frankly, I had forgotten their questions. It had been 35 years or more since I’d looked at those books, and I was curious what I’d found in them as a young man that had inspired me to live the life of a political activist.
At this moment of maximum political confusion, I think all of us would be well advised to stand back, take a deep breath, and remember the questions so many of us were asking before the Vietnam War became unendurable and the movement took its Marxist turn.
Harrington: What does it mean to be poor?
Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1963), which mesmerized me in 11th grade, did more than any other piece of writing to inspire the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s. But it’s not fair to judge the book through the lens of the largely unsuccessful War on Poverty.
Read it again in the cool light of 2005 and you’ll see that what it mostly does is ask a brave and transcendent question: What does it mean to be a poor person?
It’s a question we tend to avoid in our politically correct age: Most of us are content to say that being poor means having little money.
But Harrington, deeply involved in Catholic slum relief efforts, knew that poverty was not so easily defined (or remedied). “The American poor are pessimistic and defeated,” he wrote, and they are “victimized by mental suffering.”
And their pessimism couldn’t be done away with by “giving” them more money or flashy new housing projects, for they lived in a “culture of poverty.” There is “a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a world view of the poor,” and so far as Harrington was concerned it was the WRONG language, the WRONG psychology, the WRONG world view. No cultural relativism there.
What the poor need most is not more money, Harrington said, but more aspiration. “If a group has internal vitality, a will -- if it has aspiration -- it may live in diplapidated housing, it may eat an inadequate diet, and it may suffer poverty, but it is not poor.”
By the 1980s, conservatives were using insights like these to deny money to poverty programs. But in Harrington’s hands, difficult truths about the poor were wielded to argue for different kinds of poverty programs, which neither the Great Society nor the Reagan Revolution ultimately provided.
Harrington argued passionately for programs that “can really make it possible for these people to help themselves.” His book tempted readers to ask, How can we design poverty programs that would enable (or encourage) (or force) poor people to help themselves?
As I write, tens of thousands of Katrina victims are being housed in costly hotel rooms across the U.S.; meanwhile, in Indonesia, tens of thousands of tsunami victims have been involved since day one in the unpleasant work of rebuilding their communities.
Which group of natural disaster victims do you expect will flounder longer?
Jacobs: What does it mean to be expert?
I discovered Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) in 10th grade. For a while, it convinced me I wanted to be a city planner, but longer-term it encouraged me to ask disturbing questions. First and foremost, What does it mean to be an expert?
Here in Washington DC, the answer is easy: credentials from a top-tier university and mastery of established rules. (See John Roberts.) But according to Jacobs, America’s leading city planners had the right credentials, knew their stuff -- and were still creating increasingly sterile environments that appealed to no one.
What was missing? In a word, humility. The humility to put aside one’s learned abstractions and pay close AND RESPECTFUL attention to how cities and neighborhoods work in the real world.
“My friend’s instincts told him [Boston’s bustling & colorful] North End was a good place,” Jacobs wrote in a characteristic passage. “But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him the North End was a bad place.”
True experts, according to Jacobs, are forever open to experience, forever willing to learn from “the most ordinary scenes and events,” forever eager to go “adventuring in the real world.” Defined as such, how many true experts do we have today, in city planning or anywhere else?
Goodman: Socialization to what?
I read Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1960) in 12th grade, with my first real girlfriend. It spoke to us more truly than anything we read for our classes.
Juvenile delinquency is becoming a big problem, Goodman said. But whose fault is that? Maybe there has not been a “failure of communication.” Maybe the so-called delinquents know exactly what society wants from them -- and they just don’t think it’s worthy of them.
Take the whole issue of work, Goodman said. How many jobs are out there now that require drawing on our best capacities? How many jobs can be done even “keeping our honor and dignity” intact? Not bloody many.
Has anything changed?
“[E]veryone knows and also feels” that most of our existing jobs are unnecessary, said Goodman. For example, how many jobs would we have without incessant advertising? Without planned obsolescence? Without everyone straining to keep up with the Joneses?
At the same time, everyone knows that certain crucial jobs (e.g., teaching, social work, anything that requires real craftsmanship) are scarce, not to mention underpaid, not to mention increasingly constrained by bureaucratic regulation.
Is it surprising, Goodman asked, that most of our young people quickly become “cynical and time-serving, interested in a fast buck”?
Mills: What is democracy?
I had to earn part of my way through college, and my first job was investigating every factual claim in C. Wright Mills’s book The Power Elite (1956). The sociology department at my college was hoping to shoot it down!
In the 1950s, we were taught that America was middle-class through and through, so Mills’s book came as a shock. It argued that a very narrow range of people “are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society.”
Worse, Mills argued that the power elite held onto its leading role systematically (if not consciously) -- by intermarriage, by sending its kids to the “best” prep schools, by privileging a certain social and psychological type (unerringly on display at the top professional schools), etc.
True, there was upward mobility, but less at the top than advertised. And it too served the interests of the power elite. By absorbing the “best” middle-class prospects, you relieved political pressure on the system as a whole.
The biggest question raised by Mills’s book was, What is democracy? Can a system so subtly and intricately “interconnected” at the top ever truly be said to be democratic?
“[I]n America today there are in fact tiers and ranges of wealth and power of which people in the middle and lower ranks know very little and may not even dream.” (After spending a couple of years practicing law in the middle of New York City, I can guarantee, that statement still holds.)
Close readers of Mills’s book were left with an inexorable question: What kinds of affirmative action, racial and otherwise, might be necessary to begin to truly dissolve the power elite?
Zinn: What does it mean to show courage?
During my second semester at college, I was incredibly restless (Vietnam! the Negro revolt!), and soon found myself immersed in Howard Zinn’s SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964). In a sense, I’ve never recovered.
The book was about the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the most daring and militant civil rights group in the U.S. -- the one that brought 600 college students down South in the summer of 1964, the one that counted young John Lewis as its chairman (see our review of his memoir HERE).
On a deeper level, though, Zinn was trying to get his readers to ask some questions of themselves. First and foremost, what does it mean TO YOU -- how does it implicate you, how you you choose to respond -- “when young people of 16 or 20 or 25 turn away from school, job, family, all the tokens of success in modern America, to take up new lives, hungry and hunted, in the hinterland of the Deep South?”
Another question Zinn sought to plant in us: What kind of new thinking is buried deep in us, waiting to come out, waiting to make a unique and positive mark on the world? “[T]hose in SNCC . . . are radical, but not dogmatic; thoughtful, but not ideological. Their thinking is undisciplined; it is fresh and new.”
Finally, Zinn wanted us to ask ourselves what we thought of this first wave of Sixties activists. And he wasn’t shy about supplying hints along the way: “‘These are beautiful people down here,’ [my student] wrote to me from Mississippi shortly after she arrived there to work for SNCC. . . . She was speaking of the souls of black folk -- and of white folk too. She was speaking of a beauty of spirit, of a courage beyond comprehension, which pervades the ranks of the new abolitionists in the Deep South.”
I asked Zinn’s questions so eagerly and often that within weeks I dropped out of college and went to Mississippi as a SNCC volunteer.
Fromm: Is our society sane?
Leaving college made me draft-eligible, and by 1966 I was off to Canada, where I founded the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, wrote the notorious Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada -- and devoured books like Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), and R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience (1967), books that questioned whether our admittedly materially and technologically advanced society was even sane.
Fromm asked the most sensible questions about sanity. He asked: What are we to make of a world that, in the first half of the 20th century, had failed to prevent wars that killed tens of millions of people? Of an economic system that depends for its success on a humongous military budget? Of a culture that produces some of the highest rates of suicide, homicide, and alcoholism on the planet? And so on, and so on.
According to Fromm, anyone who opens themselves up sufficiently to think on these things -- or feel them -- knows that our society is deeply ill.
What does it say about a person who readily adjusts to a sick social order? At best, nothing. The true criterion of mental health “is not one of individual adjustment to a given social order, but a universal [one involving the attainment of] freedom, spontaneiy, [and] a genuine expession of self.”
For our society to begin to approach sanity, Fromm wrote, the war threat needs to be dealt with ASAP, everybody needs to be given “the material basis for a dignified life,” and all our institutions need to become about 1000% more humanistic.
Today, just as in 1955, many sensitive individuals may have a hard time maintaining their sanity in an arguably insane world. But “[a]s long as we can think of . . . alternatives, we are not lost; as long as we can consult together and plan together, we can hope.”
Neill: Can we be happy?
After the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, I started and ran The Last Resort, a hostel for draft dodgers and military deserters in Vancouver, B.C.; and to prepare for that inimitable experience I read A.S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960).
Neill was not explicitly “political,” so his book was not a favorite among the Marxists and Black Power types that were beginning to take power in the social change movement.
But there were those of us who loved it, for Neill asked the most basic question of all: Can we be happy? And his answer was firmly, unequivocally YES: “The only curing that should be practiced is the curing of unhappiness. . . . No happy man ever . . . lynched a Negro.”
How to cure unhappiness? Neill’s answer was as straightforward as his question: “[A]llow children freedom to be themselves,” fully and freely themselves, and home and also at school.
Don’t hit them. Care deeply about them. Befriend them. Set few but clear rules, and encourage them to participate in setting their own rules. Give them space.
And in the end they’ll not only be happy. They’ll develop a sense of genuineness that will keep them from buying into the worst values and practices of our insane society.
Rogers: Can we be real?
After a couple of weeks at The Last Resort, much of it spent counseling confused and depressed war resisters, I turned for guidance to Carl Rogers’s book On Becoming a Person (1961).
Rogers, a pioneering therapist, was concerned with helping clients answer such questions as “What is my purpose?” and “What is my path in life?”
He discovered that when he didn’t attempt to lead clients -- when he simply sought “to provide a climate which contains as much of safety, of warmth, of empathic understanding, as I can genuinely find in myself to give” -- then clients responded in certain predictable ways. For example:
Rogers summed up his findings with a line from Kierkegaard: healthy individuals strive “to be that self which one truly is.”
Despite a certain public reticence, Rogers was deeply political (I treasure remembering that once, at the age of 80, he stayed up from midnight to 3 a.m. to hear me on talk radio), and toward the middle of On Becoming a Person he asked what we might say to foreign countries if we as a nation were “openly, knowingly, and acceptingly being what we truly are.”
Can you imagine a world in which our political leaders might say the following (quotes from Rogers, bracketed portions from M.S.)?:
To realize how unlikely it is that our “leaders” will ever speak so honestly, so sensibly, or so open-endedly is to realize how important it is that we create a new kind of political movement that would cherish just such an approach, in domestic affairs no less than in global.
All the books above -- out of date (and out of fashion) though they may be -- provide rich inspiration toward that end.
All our journeys
I am not enamored of the answers that the antiglobalists, the mainstream left, the mainstream right, and -- even -- the mainstream radical center, are offering now to our fundamental political problems. Some are irrelevant; most are too timid by far.
I suspected that a look back at the questions many of us were asking when we were young would re-sensitize us both to the large stakes that are at play, and to the soaring possibilities that are -- despite the current darkness -- just beyond our reach.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.
And you, Rosa Parks, lying just yesterday morning in the Capitol Rotunda -- you who knew as much as anyone about large stakes and soaring possibilities -- I like to think you'd have enjoyed it too.
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